This exquisite gemstone is not only popular but also highly valued for its beauty and symbolism. So what exactly is a diamond and why is it so valuable?
Diamonds have been a mystery for centuries. Originally discovered in rivers and streams, some ancient Greeks and Romans thought that diamonds were the tears of gods, while in India it was suggested that diamonds occurred where lightning struck the earth. Other cultures believed that diamonds were splinters from falling stars or the essence of the sun trapped on earth. As unusual as these theories sound, the truth about diamond origin is still vague and although we know more about their creation, much of what we know was only discovered in the last 75-100 years.
Scientists have learned that these precious stones go through quite a process before they reach the polished finished product in a jewellers display case. Diamonds are a solid form of carbon with atoms arranged in a crystal structure under immense pressure. They are initially formed deep within the Earth’s upper mantle (150-200km underground), here temperatures average 900-1300°C and pressures are around 50,000 times greater than that of the surface atmosphere. Under these conditions magma (molten lamproite and kimberlite) expand at rapid rates and cause the magma to erupt to the Earth’s surface via the path of least resistance, taking along with it rocks containing diamonds. These “paths of least resistance” settle in vertical structures called “kimberlite pipes” as the magma cools and hardens.
Before the 20th century, natural diamonds were exclusively recovered from alluvial sources. Alluvial diamonds are stones that have been removed from their Kimberlite Pipe by natural erosive action over millennia before being deposited in a new environment like the ocean floor, shoreline or riverbed. Today, kimberlite pipes are the most significant source of natural rough diamonds and only 1 in 200 pipes contain gem quality stones.
A Sparkling Past
First spotted in India as alluvial deposits in rivers and streams c. 2500 BC, natural diamonds have been highly prized and widely regarded as extremely precious for centuries. As early as the fourth century BC, diamonds were said to be collected from rivers and streams in India and used in precious keepsakes and trinkets to adorn the Indian wealthy classes. These diamonds soon made their way to Europe and Asia by trade routes and medieval markets. Venice, Rome is believed to be home to the first ever diamond cutting industry which started in the 1330’s and by the 1400’s India’s diamonds had become a gemstone of choice for many of Europe’s aristocracy and elite.
Diamonds symbolised strength, courage and invincibility in medieval Europe, and were highly prized additions to the crowns and regalia of royalty. Eventually India’s Diamond resources dwindled and explorers started looking for new diamond sources and discovered them in the Americas in the late 17th century.
The world’s modern diamond trade started with the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, South Africa, in the late 1800’s. De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited owned the majority of the Diamond mining exploits in Kimberley and numerous gold mines too by the end of 1888 and by the early 1900’s De Beers was responsible for around 90% of the world’s rough diamond supply. Eventually surface sources dwindled and mining had to go deeper underground. Mining became more difficult, and a comparatively low yield meant that Diamonds became increasingly expensive to mine. This forced the development of new, more efficient, mining techniques and led to advances in cutting and polishing — advances that increased efficiency, reduced costs, and enhanced the appearance of finished stones.
Today diamonds are mined across the globe. Russia, Botswana, Canada, Angola, South Africa, and Australia rank among the top ten biggest gemstone quality natural diamond producers in the world. Man made lab-created diamonds are also becoming increasingly popular.
Diamonds have been highly valued for centuries. In ancient times, these gemstones were exceedingly rare and the mystery of their origin coupled with a belief that diamonds held mystic power made them legendary. Possessing one was a symbol, not only of wealth, but invincibility, purity, strength, clarity and sovereignty. In some cultures only royalty were allowed to wear diamonds!
The rise of a wealthy middle class in the early 20th century, saw the popularity of diamonds decline. A groundbreaking marketing campaign in the 1930’s by De Beers is largely credited with the rise in the popularity of diamonds as a symbol of everlasting love. They asserted that “A Diamond is Forever” and is, therefore, the perfect proposal gem. This campaign saw diamonds being featured in famous films and worn on the red carpet by many celebrities at the time. Marilyn Monroe even sang a song about the precious stones in the film "Gentleman prefer Blondes" leading to increased obsession with these gems the world over. This obsession has lasted and diamonds continue to be the gem of choice for couples across the globe.
Today there are more natural diamonds being produced than ever before and they are no longer only available from mines. Lab-created diamonds are an industry all on their own, and these stones, indistinguishable from natural diamonds except by the assistance of specialist equipment, are less expensive and considered a more sustainable option too. And yet diamonds keep demanding the highest prices. This is in large part due to demand for them, diamond production may be at an all time high but so is diamond demand.
For a single carat of gem quality cut diamond to make it to the jewellery market, it must go through an extensive supply chain. First it must be mined, a process requiring the movement of several tonnes of earth, just to get 1 carat of rough stone. The stone is then sold to a cutter, where it is analysed, set, cut and polished into its final form. From here it is graded and given a value based on characteristics outlined by the 4 C’s of Diamond Quality. Every cut diamond, no matter its size has a unique set of characteristics which determine its value. Once graded the stone is then sold to the jewellery market, and a master jeweller purchases it, and turns it into a salute to precious moments in our lives, our love for another, special memories or major accomplishments.
With so much effort going into the stone’s preparation it’s little wonder that diamonds are so expensive and still so valued today.